It’s natural to discuss the importance of careful research when you are dealing with works of non-fiction. If you are going to write a book on the human genome project you’d better put on your genetic persona and prepare to immerse yourself in the world of science. It’s critical to have your facts straight and understand them well enough to express them clearly.
But neither should you minimize the role of research in works of fiction. If your novel is a medical thriller, if you are setting your story in World War II or if your main character is a forensic scientist, you will need to understand some pathophysiology and pharmacology, read up on the invasion of Normandy or Iwojima or buddy up to a DNA guru.
Many of us adhere to the suggestion “Write what you know,” but even that will most likely call for you to arm yourself with some knowledge. In my first novel, which deals with kidney transplantation, I have the double advantage of being a nurse and a transplant survivor but, while I’m better informed than most of my readers, I still needed to do a lot of reading on pregnancy in a transplant patient and kidney cancer, neither of which are part of my own personal experience. Both the Internet and a nephrologist (kidney doctor) came to my aid.
Because “Winter is Past” is set in Reno, where I live, the question of “place” wasn’t a problem, but my second novel, The Sin of His Father, takes place in Chicago. I’ve visited Chicago a couple of times, including during the initial phases of my outlining. At that time, the concierge at the hotel where we stayed provided me with a wealth of reading materials and I was able to roam around the areas of the city where I planted my character. As I began to write, I needed to return to the Internet to learn small details such as routes for the “L” and the CTA.
The story deals with a young man who learns on his mother’s deathbed that he was conceived in rape. Consumed by fear that he has a predisposition to sexual deviancy and violence, he eventually goes into a Franciscan monastery. While I have my own experience of religious life (if not his motivation) to draw upon for many aspects of this lifestyle, I was not a Franciscan…nor a man. I was fortunate to secure the help of a Franciscan priest to walk me through the details of their process of formation and daily living. My next step is to get a male member of my writing critique group to see how well I entered into the masculine point of view.
I suggest that as part of your writing preparation phase you devote as much time as you need to research those areas of knowledge- deficit that you are able to identify up front. If you are a writer who works from an outline, some questions will pop out at you right away but that doesn’t mean you won’t need to break away from your writing to check or discover more information.
To recap, use your Internet for fact-finding but be sure to double-check, using more than one source. It’s invaluable to be able to consult with an “expert” as well. Depending on your genre, you may ask your reader to “suspend disbelief.” You are writing fiction. But you don’t want them to have to take a leap of faith that could deter them from continuing to accompany you into the alternate world you have created for their reading pleasure.
Happy writing–enjoy the process.